What Doth a Leader Make?

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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“(The leader's) intellectual acts are strong and independent even in isolation and his will need no reinforcement from others ... (He) loves no one but himself, or other people only insofar as they serve his needs.”

Freud, Sigmund, "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego"

How does a leader become a leader?

In this article, we are not interested in the historical process but in the answer to the twin questions: what qualifies one to be a leader and why do people elect someone specific to be a leader.

The immediately evident response would be that the leader addresses or is judged by his voters to be capable of addressing their needs. These could be economic needs, psychological needs, or moral needs. In all these cases, if left unfulfilled, these unrequited needs are judged to be capable of jeopardizing "acceptable (modes of) existence". Except in rare cases (famine, war, plague), survival is rarely at risk. On the contrary, people are mostly willing to sacrifice their genetic and biological survival on the altar of said "acceptable existence".

To be acceptable, life must be honorable. To be honorable, certain conditions (commonly known as "rights") must be fulfilled and upheld. No life is deemed honorable in the absence of food and shelter (property rights), personal autonomy (safeguarded by codified freedoms), personal safety, respect (human rights), and a modicum of influence upon one's future (civil rights). In the absence of even one of these elements, people tend to gradually become convinced that their lives are not worth living. They become mutinous and try to restore the "honorable equilibrium". They seek food and shelter by inventing new technologies and by implementing them in a bid to control nature and other, human, factors. They rebel against any massive breach of their freedoms. People seek safety: they legislate and create law enforcement agencies and form armies.

 Above all, people are concerned with maintaining their dignity and an influence over their terms of existence, present and future. The two may be linked : the more a person influences his environment and moulds – the more respected he is by others. Leaders are perceived to be possessed of qualities conducive to the success of such efforts. The leader seems to be emitting a signal that tells his followers: I can increase your chances to win the constant war that you are waging to find food and shelter, to be respected, to enhance your personal autonomy and security, and o have a say about your future.

But WHAT is this signal? What information does it carry? How is it received and deciphered by the led? And how, exactly, does it influence their decision making processes?

The signal is, probably, a resonance. The information emanating from the leader, the air exuded by him, his personal data must resonate with the situation of the people he leads. The leader must not only resonate with the world around him – but also with the world that he promises to usher. Modes, fashions, buzzwords, fads, beliefs, hopes, fears, hates and loves, plans, other information, a vision – all must be neatly incorporated in this resonance table. A leader is a shorthand version of the world in which he operates, a map of his times, the harmony (if not the melody) upon which those led by him can improvise. They must see in him all the principle elements of their mental life: grievances, agreements, disagreements, anger, deceit, conceit, myths and facts, interpretation, compatibility, guilt, paranoia, illusions and delusions – all wrapped (or warped) into one neat parcel. It should not be taken to mean that the leader must be an average person – but he must discernibly contain the average person or faithfully reflect him. His voice must echo the multitude of sounds that formed the popular wave which swept him to power. This ability of his, to be and not to be, to vacate himself, to become the conduit of other people's experiences and existence, in short: to be a gifted actor – is the first element in the leadership signal. It is oriented to the past and to the present.

The second element is what makes the leader distinct. Again, it is resonance. The leader must be perceived to resonate in perfect harmony with a vision of the future, agreeable to the people who elected him. "Agreeable" – read: compatible with the fulfillment of the aforementioned needs in a manner, which renders life acceptable. Each group of people has its own requirements, explicit and implicit, openly expressed and latent.

The members of a nation might feel that they have lost the ability to shape their future and that their security is compromised. They will then select a leader who will – so they believe, judged by what they know about him – restore both. The means of restoration are less important. To become a leader, one must convince the multitude, the masses, the public that one can deliver, not that one knows the best, most optimal and most efficient path to a set goal. The HOW is of no consequences. It pales compared to the WILL HE ? This is because people value the results more than the way. Even in the most individualistic societies, people prefer the welfare of the group to which they belong to their own. The leader promises to optimize utility for the group as a whole. It is clear that not all the members will equally benefit, or even benefit at all. The one who convinces his fellow beings that he can secure the attainment of their goals (and, thus, provide for their needs satisfactorily) – becomes a leader. What matters to the public varies from time to time and from place to place. To one group of people, the personality of the leader is of crucial importance, to others his ancestral roots. At one time, the religious affiliation, and at another, the right education, or a vision of the future. Whatever determines the outcome, it must be strongly correlated with what the group perceives to be its needs and firmly founded upon its definition of an acceptable life. This is the information content of the signal.

Selecting a leader is no trivial pursuit. People take it very seriously. They often believe that the results of this decision also determine whether their needs are fulfilled or not. In other words : the choice of leader determines if they lead an acceptable life. These seriousness and contemplative attitude prevail even when the leader is chosen by a select few (the nobility, the party).

Thus, information about the leader is gathered from open sources, formal and informal, by deduction, induction and inference, through contextual surmises, historical puzzle-work and indirect associations. To which ethnic group does the candidate belong? What is his history and his family's / tribe's / nation's? Where is he coming from , geographically and culturally? What is he aiming at and where is he going to, what is his vision? Who are his friends, associates, partners, collaborators, enemies and rivals? What are the rumors about him, the gossip? These are the cognitive, epistemological and hermeneutic dimensions of the information gathered. It is all subject to a process very similar to scientific theorizing. Hypotheses are constructed to fit the known facts. Predictions are made. Experiments conducted and data gathered. A theory is then developed and applied to the known facts. As more data is added – the theory undergoes revisions or even a paradigmatic shift. As with scientific conservatism, the reigning theory tends to color the interpretation of new data. A cult of "priests' (commentators and pundits) emerges to defend common wisdom and "well known" "facts" against intellectual revisionism and non-conformism. But finally the theory settles down and a consensus emerges: a leader is born.

The emotional aspect is predominant, though. Emotions play the role of gatekeepers and circuit breakers in the decision-making processes involved in the selection of a leader. They are the filters, the membranes through which information seeps into the minds of the members of the group. They determine the inter-relations between the various data. Finally, they assign values and moral and affective weights within a coherent emotional framework to the various bits information . Emotions are rules of procedure. The information is the input processed by these rules within a fuzzy decision theorem. The leader is the outcome (almost the by-product) of this process.

This is a static depiction, which does not provide us with the dynamics of the selection process. How does the information gathered affect it? Which elements interact? How is the outcome determined?

It would seem that people come naturally equipped with a mechanism for the selection of leaders. This mechanism is influenced by experience (a-posteriori). It is in the form of procedural rules, an algorithm which guides the members of the group in the intricacies of the group interaction known as "leadership selection".

This leader-selection mechanism comprises two modules: a module for the evaluation and taxonomy of information and an interactive module. The former is built to deal with constantly added data, to evaluate them and to alter the emerging picture (Weltanschauung) accordingly (to reconstruct or to adjust the theory, even to replace it with another).

The second module responds to signals from the other members of the group and treats these signals as data, which, in turn, affects the performance of the first module. The synthesis of the output produced by these two modules determines the ultimate selection.

Leader selection is an interaction between a "nucleus of individuality", which is comprised of our Self, the way we perceive our Self (introspective element) and the way that we perceive our Selves as reflected by others. Then there is the "group nucleus", which incorporates the group's consciousness and goals. A leader is a person who succeeds in giving expression to both these nuclei amply and successfully. When choosing a leader, we, thus, really are choosing ourselves.

APPENDIX: A Comment on Campaign Finance Reform

The Athenian model of representative participatory democracy was both exclusive and direct. It excluded women and slaves but it allowed the rest to actively, constantly, and consistently contribute to decision making processes on all levels and of all kinds (including juridical). This was (barely) manageable in a town 20,000 strong.

The application of this model to bigger polities is rather more problematic and leads to serious and ominous failures.

The problem of the gathering and processing of information - a logistical constraint - is likely to be completely, satisfactorily, and comprehensively resolved by the application of computer networks to voting. Even with existing technologies, election results (regardless of the size of the electorate), can be announced with great accuracy within hours.

Yet, computer networks are unlikely to overcome the second obstacle - the problem of the large constituency.

Political candidates in a direct participatory democracy need to keep each and every member of their constituency (potential voter) informed about their platform, (if incumbent) their achievements, their person, and what distinguishes them from their rivals. This is a huge amount of information. Its dissemination to large constituencies requires outlandish amounts of money (tens of millions of dollars per campaign).

Politicians end up spending a lot of their time in office (and out of it) raising funds through "contributions" which place them in hock to "contributing" individuals and corporations. This anomaly cannot be solved by tinkering with campaign finance laws. It reflects the real costs of packaging and disseminating information. To restrict these activities would be a disservice to democracy and to voters.

Campaign finance reform in its current (myriad) forms, is, thus, largely anti-democratic: it limits access to information (by reducing the money available to the candidates to spread their message). By doing so, it restricts choice and it tilts the electoral machinery in favor of the haves. Voters with money and education are able to obtain the information they need by themselves and at their own expense. The haves-not, who rely exclusively on information dished out by the candidates, are likely to be severely disadvantaged by any form of campaign finance reform.

The solution is to reduce the size of the constituencies. This can be done only by adopting an indirect, non-participatory form of democracy, perhaps by abolishing the direct election (and campaigning) of most currently elected office holders. Direct elections in manageable constituencies will be confined to multi-tiered, self-dissolving ("sunset") "electoral colleges" composed exclusively of volunteers.

APPENDIX: Strong Men and Political Theatres - The "Being There" Syndrome

"I came here to see a country, but what I find is a theater ... In appearances, everything happens as it does everywhere else. There is no difference except in the very foundation of things.”

(de Custine, writing about Russia in the mid-19th century)

Four decades ago, the Polish-American-Jewish author, Jerzy Kosinski, wrote the book "Being There". It describes the election to the presidency of the United States of a simpleton, a gardener, whose vapid and trite pronouncements are taken to be sagacious and penetrating insights into human affairs. The "Being There Syndrome" is now manifest throughout the world: from Russia (Putin) to the United States (Obama).

Given a high enough level of frustration, triggered by recurrent, endemic, and systemic failures in all spheres of policy, even the most resilient democracy develops a predilection to "strong men", leaders whose self-confidence, sangfroid, and apparent omniscience all but "guarantee" a change of course for the better.

These are usually people with a thin resume, having accomplished little prior to their ascendance. They appear to have erupted on the scene from nowhere. They are received as providential messiahs precisely because they are unencumbered with a discernible past and, thus, are ostensibly unburdened by prior affiliations and commitments. Their only duty is to the future. They are a-historical: they have no history and they are above history.

Indeed, it is precisely this apparent lack of a biography that qualifies these leaders to represent and bring about a fantastic and grandiose future. They act as a blank screen upon which the multitudes project their own traits, wishes, personal biographies, needs, and yearnings.

The more these leaders deviate from their initial promises and the more they fail, the dearer they are to the hearts of their constituents: like them, their new-chosen leader is struggling, coping, trying, and failing and, like them, he has his shortcomings and vices. This affinity is endearing and captivating. It helps to form a shared psychosis (follies-a-plusieurs) between ruler and people and fosters the emergence of an hagiography.

The propensity to elevate narcissistic or even psychopathic personalities to power is most pronounced in countries that lack a democratic tradition (such as China, Russia, or the nations that inhabit the territories that once belonged to Byzantium or the Ottoman Empire).

Cultures and civilizations which frown upon individualism and have a collectivist tradition, prefer to install "strong collective leaderships" rather than "strong men". Yet, all these polities maintain a theatre of democracy, or a theatre of "democratically-reached consensus" (Putin calls it: "sovereign democracy"). Such charades are devoid of essence and proper function and are replete and concurrent with a personality cult or the adoration of the party in power.

In most developing countries and nations in transition, "democracy" is an empty word. Granted, the hallmarks of democracy are there: candidate lists, parties, election propaganda, a plurality of media, and voting. But its quiddity is absent. The democratic principles are institutions are being consistently hollowed out and rendered mock by election fraud, exclusionary policies, cronyism, corruption, intimidation, and collusion with Western interests, both commercial and political.

The new "democracies" are thinly-disguised and criminalized plutocracies (recall the Russian oligarchs), authoritarian regimes (Central Asia and the Caucasus), or puppeteered heterarchies (Macedonia, Bosnia, and Iraq, to mention three recent examples).

The new "democracies" suffer from many of the same ills that afflict their veteran role models: murky campaign finances; venal revolving doors between state administration and private enterprise; endemic corruption, nepotism, and cronyism; self-censoring media; socially, economically, and politically excluded minorities; and so on. But while this malaise does not threaten the foundations of the United States and France - it does imperil the stability and future of the likes of Ukraine, Serbia, and Moldova, Indonesia, Mexico, and Bolivia.

Many nations have chosen prosperity over democracy. Yes, the denizens of these realms can't speak their mind or protest or criticize or even joke lest they be arrested or worse - but, in exchange for giving up these trivial freedoms, they have food on the table, they are fully employed, they receive ample health care and proper education, they save and spend to their hearts' content.

In return for all these worldly and intangible goods (popularity of the leadership which yields political stability; prosperity; security; prestige abroad; authority at home; a renewed sense of nationalism, collective and community), the citizens of these countries forgo the right to be able to criticize the regime or change it once every four years. Many insist that they have struck a good bargain - not a Faustian one.

The Agent-Principal Problem in Politics

The agent-principal problem is rife in politics. In the narrative that is the modern state, politicians are supposed to generate higher returns to citizens by increasing the value of the state’s assets and, therefore, of the state. In the context of politics, assets are both of the economic and of the geopolitical varieties. Politicians who fail to do so, goes the morality play, are booted out mercilessly.

The misconduct of politicians is one manifestation of the "Principal-Agent Problem". It is defined thus by the Oxford Dictionary of Economics:

"The problem of how a person A can motivate person B to act for A's benefit rather than following (his) self-interest."

The obvious answer is that A can never motivate B not to follow B's self-interest - never mind what the incentives are. That economists pretend otherwise - in "optimal contracting theory" - just serves to demonstrate how divorced economics is from human psychology and, thus, from reality.

The same goes for politics and political science, respectively.

Politicians will always rob blind the state. They will always manipulate electorates, political parties, legislatures, and the judiciary to induce them to collude in their shenanigans. They will always bribe constituents and legislators to bend the rules. In other words, they will always act in their self-interest. In their defense they can say that the damage from such actions to each citizen is minuscule while the benefits to the politician are enormous. In other words: such misbehaviour is the rational, self-interested, thing to do.

But why do citizens cooperate with such political brigandage? In an important Chicago Law Review article titled "Managerial Power and Rent Extraction in the Design of Executive Compensation" the authors demonstrate how the typical stock option granted to managers as part of their remuneration rewards mediocrity rather than encourages excellence.

But everything falls into place if we realize that citizens and politicians are allied against the state - not pitted against each other. The paramount interest of both citizens and politicians is to increase the value of their benefits (stake) regardless of the true value of the state. Both are concerned with the performance of their individual assets rather than with the performance of the state. Both are preoccupied with boosting the “share's price” rather than the “company's business”.

Hence the inflationary perks and pay packages enjoyed by politicians, directly (via campaign contributions, personal favours, an enhanced quality of lifestyle) and indirectly (via the revolving door between politics and business). Citizens hire “stock manipulators” - euphemistically known as "politicians" - to generate expectations regarding the future prices of their stakes in the state.

These snake oil salesmen and snake charmers - politicians - are allowed by the citizenry to loot the state providing they generate consistent “capital gains” to their masters. This they do by provoking persistent interest and excitement around the country and the nation and their prospects, both economic and geopolitical. Citizens, in other words, do not behave as owners of a firm - they behave as free-riders.

The Principal-Agent Problem arises in other social interactions and is equally misunderstood there. Consider taxpayers and their government. Contrary to conservative lore, the former want the government to tax them on condition that they share in the spoils. They tolerate corruption in high places, cronyism, nepotism, inaptitude and worse providing that the government and the legislature redistribute the wealth they confiscate. Such redistribution often comes in the form of pork barrel projects and benefits to the middle-class and the affluent.

This is why the tax burden and the government's share of GDP have been soaring inexorably with the consent of the citizenry. People adore government spending precisely because it is inefficient and distorts the proper allocation of economic resources. The vast majority of people are rent-seekers. Witness the mass demonstrations that erupt whenever governments try to slash expenditures, privatize, and eliminate their gaping deficits. This is one reason the IMF with its austerity measures is universally unpopular.

Employers and employees, producers and consumers, voters and elected officials all reify the Principal-Agent Problem. Economists would do well to discard their models and go back to basics. They could start by asking:

Why do shareholders acquiesce with executive malfeasance as long as share prices are rising?

Why do citizens protest against a smaller government even though it means lower taxes?

Could it mean that the interests of shareholders and managers are identical? Does it imply that people prefer tax-and-spend governments and pork barrel politics to the Thatcherite alternative?

Nothing happens by accident or by coercion. Electorates the world over aided and abetted the current crop of venal politicians enthusiastically. They knew well what was happening. They may not have been aware of the exact nature and extent of the rot, but they witnessed approvingly the public relations antics, unnecessary wars, rampant malfeasance, media manipulation, opaque transactions, and outlandish pay packets. People remained mum as they witnessed the mounting corruption of the political-corporate nexus.

Still, there is an even narrower and more worrisome interpretation of the politician’s comportment, in which he is answerable not to his constituents, but to party hacks.

It is a common error to assume that the politician's role is to create jobs, encourage economic activity, enhance the welfare and well-being of his subjects, preserve the territorial integrity of his country, and fulfil a host of other functions.

In truth, the politician has a single and exclusive role: to get re-elected. His primary responsibility is to his party and its members. He owes them patronage: jobs, sinecures, guaranteed income or cash flow, access to the public purse, and the intoxicating wielding of power. His relationship is with his real constituency - the party's rank and file - and he is accountable to them the same way a CEO (Chief Executive Officer) answers to the corporation's major shareholders.

To make sure that they get re-elected, politicians are sometimes required to implement reforms and policy measures that contribute to the general welfare of the populace and promote it. At other times, they have to refrain from action to preserve their electoral assets and extend their political life expectancy.

The Active Presidency

An "Active Presidency" is the fourth pillar of a constitutional order which also includes the executive (government), judiciary, and parliament.

The Active President:

1. Initiates public conversations, consultations, and discourses regarding various economic, social, and cultural problems;

2. Proposes policy measures, including analyses and draft legislation submitted to the government for its consideration (functions as a "think tank");

3. Serves as a unifying consensual figure, above politics, and detached from the political Establishment (although NOT ANTI-Establishment);

4. Fosters the creation of permanent and ad-hoc institutions to tackle nation-wide issues;

5. Interacts with the people on a regular, predictable basis ("fireside chats") and solicits interaction and input from all strata of society and all ethnic groups;

6. Facilitates inter-partisan dialog between party leaders and party fora on a regular, structured, and institutionalized basis ("The President's Inter-party Consultation Forum").

To perform the above, the Active President:

1. Forms 3 permanent and prestigious working groups: The Presidential Council of Economic Advisors, the President's Social Task Force, and the President's Cultural Endowment. The sessions and work of these formations are open to public scrutiny and the public is encouraged to participate in the process in a structured way and via modern technology (social media, for instance.)

2. Surrounds himself with a group of technocrats, both young and experienced, who can produce policy papers and recommendations as well as draft laws where required. Sets priorities and identifies targets such as: poverty amelioration and eradication; job creation programs; enhancement of tolerance and diversity; bridging income inequality and fighting corrupt practices; encouraging bipartisanship and the regular and institutionalized exchange of ideas between government and opposition; Inclusionary minority policies; rendering Macedonia an integral part of the cultural-political sphere of Europe and, by extension, the West and so on.

3. Distances himself from daily politics and from all political parties, but expresses strong and clear opinions as to his vision of the country's economic goals, its social and communal cohesion, and cultural heritage and creative future. The Active President is a moral voice and makes repeated and reasoned use of his bully pulpit to promote and further a consensual and functional civil society: liberal-democratic values such as pluralism and rule of law (anti-corruption) and a compassionate and more equitable form of capitalism (capitalism with a human face).

Active Presidents don’t deal with slogans, but propose concrete plans and the institutions attendant on them.


Also Read:

Narcissistic Leaders

Narcissists, Terrorists and Group Behaviour

Collective Narcissism

Hitler - The Inverted Saint

Narcissism in the Boardroom

Agent-Principal Conundrum

Resources regarding Leadership Styles


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